The BAD Sydney Crime Writers Festival is an annual event that explores what crime can tell us about human beings today and in the past. Speakers include writers, reporters and film-makers, and professionals from the justice system such as detectives, judges and psychologists. Sydney is particularly appropriate for such exploration because it was founded by convicts and their guards. It has been significantly affected by crime and corruption for much of its history. (You can find tickets and more information on the Bad Sydney website- Bad Sydney.)
On Friday I attended my first of three sessions. Crime Fiction as the Literature of Resistance with Sulari Gentill, Mark Brandi and Robert Gott in conversation with Kate Evans. I have the first of Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair books on my TBR and have Mark Brandi’s book The Others on my wishlist. Now I’m desperate to read Gott’s stories about women police officers in the 40s in Victoria! Writers take note: Podcasts and festivals sell books!
Can crime fiction save the world? Should we expect it to?
While the panellists considered this both a tall order and not necessarily the job of the fiction author, they did concede that stories can change the way we think and the lens through which we see the world. Sulari said Australian audiences are comfortable with a loser (as protagonist) a fact she shared with US audiences (to their dismay.) Aussies love an underdog, and a character who stands up against the odds can inspire a reader to do the same.
Historical crime fiction can show readers parallels in contemporary society and perhaps prompt them to take action. Robert Gott’s work shows the discrimination against women police officers in the 1940s in Victoria and Mark Brandi’s main characters include a homeless man. At its best, depicting characters in fiction who are marginalised in society can cause readers to wonder about the reality of life for people other than themselves, to figuratively walk a mile in their shoes. More than once my husband has noticed the treatment of women like Marie Curie or Colette in historical movies asking, ‘Is this really how she was treated?’ He asks because the terrible treatment is almost unbelievable for someone who has only just heard about it.
The panel also touched on the idea of deserving and undeserving victims. I’m currently writing what I think will be a kind of cosy mystery set in Australia and one of the tropes of cosies is that the victim (of the crime, usually a murder) must be deserving victim and the perpetrator should ideally be someone the reader can enjoy seeing getting their just desserts.
Sulari mentioned Michael Connelly’s character Harry Bosch who said when referring to victims of crime, ‘Everybody counts or nobody counts.’ I believe this means that we must treat our ‘victims’ with respect in our writing. This is really important for me and I believe creates a natural boundary for writers when depicting abuse and violence. I personally hate reading graphic violence and depictions of abuse and prefer stories where the crime is referred to in different ways using literary devices. That’s a personal opinion and informs what I will read (and write. – For more on this see the Id List) but having said that my work in progress, Mimi Gets away with Murder, includes a pretty graphic murder in the opening chapters.
Mark Brandi’s book The Others has been described as prescient as it depicts a dystopian ‘future’ that reflects elements we saw early in Covid lockdowns like panic buying. Brandi said he didn’t think novels could predict the future but that they could ask moral questions about what is wrong and what is right, the good, the bad and the ugly, what is born in us and what is a product of our childhood or circumstances. Even in real life, when we are given a glimpse into the previous trauma suffered by a criminal we can’t help but wonder how we would have fared in the same circumstances. (This also holds clues for writing flawed, believable characters and villains we love despite ourselves.)
The panel also suggested readers gravitate towards crime fiction and true crime as people are looking for pointers towards what’s right and wrong and to see wrongs be righted, if you’ll excuse my crimes against the English language there! As a former lawyer, Mark Brandi is only too aware that there are rarely winners in the justice system, and that’s usually the lawyers. He believes that crime fiction/true crime helps to show the audience where the boundaries are as they delve into the age-old question of “What makes an ordinary person commit a crime?” and by extension, what would it take for me?
Most writers worry about making their crimes believable and the panel support this but they suggested readers love amateur sleuths purely because they can break the rules. While many writers might want to right the wrongs and change the world, at the end of the day we shouldn’t lost sight of the face that in the case of crime fiction we’re here to entertain our readers.